Richardson downplays setbacks

By Steve Terrell: The New Mexican

It was supposed to be his “legacy session,” but in some ways Gov. Bill Richardson got kicked in the teeth during his last regular legislative session.

Senators blocked one of his appointments to a state board — the first time since Gary Johnson’s first administration. The Senate overwhelmingly voted to override two of his vetoes from the previous session — though House Democrats made sure the override attempts ended with a thud.

And they stomped all over many of his proposals including domestic partnerships, stricter DWI penalties, creating an independent ethics commission and others.

And lawmakers ended this 30-day budget session on Thursday without passing a budget bill.

But in a post-session press conference, Richardson downplayed the setbacks and emphasized the bills on his agenda that passed the Legislature.

Asked to grade the session, the governor said he’d give the Legislature an A-minus for the non-budget item.

He was pleased that lawmakers passed the Hispanic Education Act, two similar bills to protect “whistleblowers” who report wrongdoing in state government, a bill to change the structure of the State Investment Council, a bill prohibiting “double dipping” by public employees who retire and then return to work with a government salary while also receiving retirement benefits, and several low-profile bills.

And when asked how he’d grade the Legislature for the budget, Richardson hemmed and hawed for a moment before his legislative aide Eric Witt prompted him: “An incomplete.”

Because of that “incomplete,” Richardson announced he’ll call a special session for Wednesday. Richardson predicted the session will last for more than a day.

Said Richardson, “I don’t want to send the signal to the financial market that our budget is not concluded,” he said. “That’s why I want quick action. He also said he doesn’t want to have the special session during primary season. All members of the House of Representatives are up for re-election.

Richardson, who cannot by law seek a third consecutive term, leaves office at the end of the year. He has been governor since January 2003.

As has been the case for years, Richardson’s biggest headaches have come from the Senate, which is more conservative and more independent that the House.

Some have criticized Richardson for not coming out with a specific plan on what budget cuts and what new taxes he wanted.

He disagreed. “I signaled early on I wanted a balanced approach,” Richardson told reporters.

Senate President Pro-tem Tim Jennings, D-Roswell, told a reporter that Richardson could have made the process easier by not sending lawmakers more than 200 messages for bills not related to the budget.

Richardson at his news conference said the special session will be more focused. “I have to set an example of not putting much on the call if I’m asking everyone else not to.”

For instance, he said he wouldn’t ask for a bill in the special session to allow unmarried couples enter into domestic partnerships — even though before the session he listed that as one of his top priorities. “We don’t have the votes,” he explained. The Senate Finance Committee tabled such a bill during the session.

But he said he’d consider asking for an ethics commission bill.

Both chambers passed such bills in recent days, but Richardson said he had serious problems with them. Both imposed penalties for violating confidentiality, calling for fines up to $26,000 for violating confidentiality. Groups that have worked for an independent ethics commission for years, including the Foundation for Open Government and Common Cause.

And others already are lining up to ask to be included. The session had only been finished for about half an hour before Think New Mexico wrote Richardson requesting a bill to prohibit campaign contributions from lobbyists and state contractors be put on the call. That bill passed the House this week but died in the Senate.